The Insider

Transition Go-Go
With New Year's and the symbolic touches of his inauguration behind him, Mayor Lee Brown now begins the task of wringing out the old and bringing in the new at City Hall. Some holdovers from the Lanier administration are expected to get the hint and go willingly; others will eventually have to be given the boot.

Getting a jump on the exodus was Bob Lanier's chief of staff and head hatchet man Dave Walden, who packed up and moved out of his office even before Lanier and his wife had flown off to a Palm Springs spa following the January 2 swearing-in of Brown and the new City Council. Walden, who'll put his particular talents to work as a consultant and lobbyist, says that vacating the City Hall pressure cooker was like having a tumor removed. Undoubtedly, those who have felt the steel of Walden's blade on behalf of Lanier would use similar imagery to describe his exit.

It may take an even blunter surgical procedure by Brown to excise some of Walden's Lanier administration colleagues. "Not everybody can stay up there," observes Walden, indicating that some of the old hands are going to try. "There just isn't enough room."

The string of inauguration-related events over the New Year's holiday provided numerous venues in which both the hangers-on and aspiring bureaucrats could trade gossip and schmooze with their possible future municipal employer. In addition to marking the end of the Lanier era, the festivities also provided ample evidence that Lanier predecessor Kathy Whitmire and her old associates regard Brown's victory as a triumph of one of their own, rather than the ascension of a Lanier factotum. After all, it was Whitmire who brought Brown to Houston in 1982 as the first police chief of her administration.

The former mayor, who had not attended a Houston inauguration since her own in 1990, made most of the events in the company of new Controller Sylvia Garcia, another of her proteges who finally won elected office, after several previous unsuccessful tries, by ousting the man most unlikely to be missed at City Hall, Lloyd Kelley. For most of the week, Whitmire wore what seemed to be a permanent smile, making it clear that after six years of Lanier, Houston is once again her city, too. Members of the Whitmire administration even staged a reunion on New Year's Day at former press secretary Paul Mabry's north Houston home.

The Second Coming of the Whitmites started with the New Year's Eve ceremonies officially opening Bayou Place, developer David Cordish's redo of the Albert Thomas Convention Center -- a project that was on the drawing board when Whitmire was mayor. Judging by the crowd at the VIP dedication, the year dawning could have been 1988 instead of 1998. Watching as Brown, Bob and Elyse, and Whitmire made their stage entrances were a who's who from Whitmire's decade-long reign: former city attorney Clarence West and his wife, former regulatory affairs director Jane Cater; Whitmire's dollar-a-year executive, Alan Rudy, and his wife, former personnel director Stephanie Burke; city planner Jerry Wood, who stayed on through the Lanier administration; and a much-mellowed Joanne Adams, Whitmire's former chief of staff, who looked years younger than when she made her bitter departure from City Hall at the end of 1991.

Adams, who made plenty of enemies as Whitmire's version of Dave Walden, was on a break from her current assignment, working with the new governments of Romania and Albania on perfecting their nascent democratic institutions. Adams mixed easily with the Lanier officials and even mugged with Walden for photos. She marveled at just how little the ranks of the major political players in Houston had changed in her absence. Of course, compared to the former Communist-bloc countries where she now plies her trade, the cast of characters does tend to turn over a bit more slowly here.

Beyond the unlikely political pairings, the Bayou Place dedication had a decidedly surreal flavor, accented by the choice of bands. As the dignitaries milled about, state Representative Ron Wilson, the lead guitarist for Miss Frances and the Rhythm Fish, launched into Jimi Hendrix's version of the "Star Spangled Banner," accompanied by some desultory rattling on percussion by Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino. Elyse Lanier set the fashion low light with a sequined outfit topped by a fur coat, leading one Whitmite to whisper, "If this was Colorado, they'd throw blood on her."

The inauguration two days later at the Wortham Center offered portents that the Brown administration may be a bit shaky in the advance-planning department. Somehow, the event coordinators forgot to invite the city's federal and state legislative delegations to the event, leaving folks like Congressman Ken Bentsen and state Senator Rodney Ellis scrambling for invites at the last minute. When former mayor Louie Welch and his wife came on-stage at the ceremony, they found there were no chairs allotted for them.

Luckily, serendipity provided the most moving part of the ceremony -- the impromptu singing of the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," sparked by 68-year-old Jean Dember. A retired Urban League career counselor from Long Island who now splits her year between Houston and New York, Dember does not salute the U.S. flag nor recite the pledge of allegiance because she believes they do not represent African-Americans. She says she launched her a cappella rendition of "Lift Every Voice" after realizing it was not scheduled to be sung during the program. The song, she said, "has brought us through so much travail [and] still sustains our community with the high hopes of full participation." Many blacks and the few whites in the crowd familiar with the James Weldon Johnson composition joined Dember and sang through the first verse. Even Brown, a man not given to public spontaneity, appeared to be singing along.

With the symbolism and public posturing of the inaugural activities concluded, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering for high-visibility posts in the new administration is on in earnest. Here's The Insider's guide to the New World Brown Order, based on interviews with associates of Lanier and the new mayor and transition team tipsters.

Lanier agenda director Dan Jones just might stay on, Dave Walden allows, because "he's like a roach. He'd survive nuclear war." Jones, who has served under mayors Jim McConn, Whitmire and Lanier, seemed glued to Brown's elbow during the ceremonial City Council meeting following the inaugural.

Top candidates for chief of staff positions under Brown are Al Calloway, a former councilman and Lanier aide, and Larry Payne, a Council agenda director under Whitmire and onetime aide to George Greanias who now directs the Institute for Urban Education. William Paul Thomas, currently Rodney Ellis's Houston office director, may join the mayor's staff as liaison to the African-American community.

The top spot at what is perhaps the most important city department, Public Works and Engineering, should be up for grabs with the expected resignation of director Jimmie Schindewolf. Schindewolf has insisted he keep the expanded role he enjoyed under Lanier as the city's infrastructure czar -- a prerogative unlikely to be accepted by the new mayor. No clear successor is apparent, though deputy public works directors Richard Scott or Tom Roland could step in as caretakers until a permanent director is selected.

With city attorney Gene Locke bound for the downtown firm of Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton in several months, the door is open for Brown to appoint an up-and-coming associate from one of the big downtown firms. The position has historically been a stepping stone for young lawyers to build connections at City Hall before returning to their firms. Since a woman has never held the position, Brown could choose from a wide array of female potential candidates. "He'd be smart to name a Republican woman," says a transition team member who figures Democrat Brown would do well to build some bridges in that direction.

The most certain holdover from the Lanier administration is Police Chief C.O. Bradford. "As solid a lock as anybody," says one insider. Bradford had Brown's enthusiastic support when Lanier appointed him last year. In a sense, Brown may regard Bradford as his first appointment.

Brown also wants to maintain his close relationship with Garcia, and has told associates he'd like a Finance and Administration Department director the new controller can work with. That apparently won't be the current director, Richard Lewis. Brown has been chatting with former Whitmire finance chief Al Haines, now an executive at American General. Haines is a career city manager who went into the private sector to make more money.

For his communications director, Brown is considering at least four candidates. They include Maryann Young, the spokeswoman for former city controller Greanias, Geri Konigsberg, a former HISD and HL&P flack who currently works for the Harris County Psychiatric Hospital, and longtime Houston media veteran Sue Davis, currently program director at 97.1/KTLK-FM talk radio. Don Payne, the former Solid Waste Management Department spokesman who handled the media chores for Brown's campaign and inaugural, is the fourth possibility. Whitmire administration mouthpiece Mabry has been mentioned as a possible communications director -- if the position is broadened to include supervision of the Municipal Access channels.

Fire Chief Eddie Corral is considered one of the sure departees, perhaps returning to his old position of fire marshal. Corral has been hit by waves of bad publicity over the questionable activities of fire inspectors and incidents where defective pumpers were sent to fire scenes. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Houston Black Firefighters Association, two groups that have not gotten along in the past, are reportedly united in pushing outspoken union chief Lester Tyra for the top job.

Another possibility, if a Hispanic appointee is needed, is Fire Marshal Hilario "Lalo" Torres. Then there's Rick Mumey, an assistant fire chief, whose name has also popped up in transition discussions.

The Aviation Department is currently headed by an acting director, Rick Vacar, who was brought in from Orlando to be groomed to succeed retiring director Paul Gaines. Vacar has gotten uniformly high marks from Lanier aides for his interim stint and is given a good chance to stay on as permanent director.

Parks and Recreation Department director Bill Smith is widely regarded as DOA in the Brown administration. "A frog in formaldehyde in a third-grade class would have more life to him," one City Hall veteran says of Smith. Deputy parks director Susan Christian is maneuvering for the job, but a Brown insider predicts the mayor will institute a nationwide search for a director while naming an acting executive, possibly parks deputy director Mike Gaskin.

Brown also must appoint a new chief municipal court judge to replace Sylvia Garcia. Assistant city attorney and onetime district judge Berta Mejia and Municipal Court Judges Fad Wilson and Hector Hernandez are the names being bandied about for the post.

And then there are the chairmanships of the Council committees to be considered, a matter of intense interest to City Hall lobbyists trying to ensure that their clients' contracts are recommended to Council. One of the most important of the committees, finance and administration, is without a head since Helen Huey left Council.

Another, the aviation committee, is chaired by at-large Councilman Joe Roach, one of the most active Council supporters of Rob Mosbacher. Roach infuriated Lanier by implying that the mayor had delayed a vote on the airport food-concession contract for political reasons. "It's one thing to endorse Rob," says one Lanier partisan, who believes Roach was trying to capitalize on media coverage of the issue. "That's legitimate. But he tried to create a two-day story there." Whether Roach keeps the chairmanship of a committee prized for great free trips remains to be seen.

Brown made much of his commitment to a higher ethical standard at City Hall, and one of the first indications of whether he's serious will be his appointment of a chairman for the Council ethics committee. "Hopefully it would be someone who's not indicted," cracks a City Hall wise guy, referring to Councilmen Michael Yarbrough and John Castillo, who stand accused of taking payoffs in the FBI's Hotel Six sting. Councilman Jew Don Boney, Brown's selection as mayor pro tem, and Councilman Felix Fraga, both of whom were scrutinized by the federal grand jury but not indicted, might not be the most appropriate candidates for chairman of that committee, either.

A Brown insider says the chairmanship will likely go to at-large Councilman Chris Bell, who made extensive use of the ethics issue in campaigning against Yarbrough aide Richard Johnson. Bell is also a Democrat who is philosophically in tune with Brown and could be counted on not to use the committee post to undermine the new mayor.

And if all that isn't enough administrative patronage to dispense, Brown will also be moving to put his own stamp on the Metro board with a handful of new appointments. The smart money is betting that transit agency Chairman Holcombe Crosswell, a Lanier intimate, will make way for a replacement untainted by anti-rail sentiments.

By the way, this political smorgasbord, just like the mayoral gala at the Wortham, is by invitation only. Remember: Don't call Brown. He'll call you.

... But you can call The Insider at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or contact him by e-mail at Insider@houstonpress.com.

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